Law Review: Murder for hire (and Porter’s murder case)
We don’t get many murder-for-hire cases to analyze in the Law Review, so when I found one out of Southern California, I pounced on it.
PORTER’S MURDER CASE
Allow me to digress. Ravn Whitington in our office skillfully handles our criminal law matters, but in the old days I practiced criminal defense law. I quit many years ago after a burglar wanted me to get him off after he bragged about burglarizing dozens of local businesses and homes. I declined and that was the end of my criminal practice. Good for all parties.
I was involved in one high-profile murder case where I ended up visiting our former client in Folsom Prison which was, I must say, intimidating. Our client, who was not perfect, was ultimately convicted of killing his former wife’s boyfriend. While it was not exactly the perfect crime, our guy was not a prime suspect until — he just couldn’t help himself — he called the police and told them he had a premonition of where the body of the missing person was buried.
He took the police to the scene in Truckee and indeed the boyfriend was buried in a fresh grave. When the authorities got a search warrant and searched our client’s home, he was wearing the deceased’s cowboy boots. That didn’t help. I did not personally handle the case (nor did any current Porter Simon lawyers), but our client was convicted and sent to Folsom.
Years later, when he asked me to visit, he whispered that he wanted me to smuggle in hundred-dollar bills so he could bribe the guards. I got the heck out of there. Back to murder for hire.
BACK TO SO-CAL CASE
David Phillips had a falling out with his former business partner, who split off and formed his own competing business.
Coincidently Phillips had loaned $30,000 to a fellow named Suiaunoa, a bouncer at a local bar — to start a marijuana grow house operation. Suiaunoa spent the first $10,000 on personal expenses and lost the remaining $20,000 on a methamphetamine deal gone bad. As the Court wrote, Suiaunoa was a better bouncer than businessman.
When Suiaunoa couldn’t pay back the money, Phillips offered to forgive the loan if he murdered the partner. Suiaunoa replied, “I know some guys …” No, this is not a movie script, this is a real case.
As it turned out, Suiaunoa’s “hit” man was working as a confidential informant as part of a narcotics investigation, having had some law enforcement problems of his own.
The police and undercover agent staged a fake killing of the partner. Phillips took the bait and acknowledged he’d ordered the “hit.”
The jury returned a guilty verdict and the court sentenced Phillips to 90 months in prison.
Phillips had a clever attorney who must have done well in contracts class when he/she was in law school. To convict under federal murder-for-hire laws the prosecutor must prove there is an enforceable promise to pay the hit man. Phillips’ promise to forgo collection of his $30,000 loan for the illegal marijuana venture was unenforceable — not guilty.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals would have nothing of it, drawing the clear distinction between civil contract law and murder-for-hire contract law.
Phillips’ promise to relieve the hit man of the $30,000 debt for the marijuana venture “gave the hit man an economic benefit” satisfying the pecuniary value requirement for a murder-for-hire conviction.
I had fun writing this, hope you enjoyed it.
Jim Porter is an attorney with Porter Simon licensed in California and Nevada, with offices in Truckee and Tahoe City, California, and Reno, Nevada. Jim’s practice areas include: real estate, development, construction, business, HOA’s, contracts, personal injury, accidents, mediation and other transactional matters. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://www.portersimon.com.